Photo/IllutrationEmperor Akihito and Empress Michiko walk along a line of guests at the palace garden party held in the Akasaka Estate in Tokyo on Nov. 9. (Tatsuya Shimada)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko hosted their last garden party at the Akasaka Estate in Tokyo on Nov. 9, and even the rain couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm and encouragement associated with these events.

One of the guests at the Imperial Palace was Okayama Governor Ryuta Ibaragi, whose prefecture experienced devastating flooding in July.

“Thank you very much for visiting the disaster-hit area in Okayama Prefecture,” Ibaragi said to Akihito.

Ibaragi told the emperor that many people whom Akihito had talked to during his visit were moved to tears.

Akihito expressed sympathy to the governor and said he hoped for a speedy recovery of Okayama Prefecture.

This will be the last garden party hosted by the couple because Akihito intends to abdicate the throne next year.

The party guests have usually included celebrated and prominent people, such as athletes, scientists and artists. But the imperial couple always acknowledge “ordinary people” who are making differences at the grass-roots level.

According to a source at the Imperial Household Agency, the emperor and empress have always looked forward to such exchanges, and they check all names on the guest list and look into details of their history or work.

It is customary for party guests to line up and have the emperor and empress chat with some of them about their achievements or fields of interest.

In the spring party in 2018, after talking to two-time Olympic gold medalist figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, the couple stopped in front of Michiyo Watanabe, 70.

Watanabe hires former convicts at her business in Tokyo’s Akishima city. Her company puts advertisement fliers in envelopes.

“How long have you been hiring (them)?” Akihito asked her.

Shortly after she started her business in 1987, Watanabe hired ex-convicts because she learned about the severe discrimination they face when they return to society. A female employee had told Watanabe that her husband was in prison, and she was in tears worried that she would be fired because of her husband’s actions.

Michiko faced Watanabe’s husband at the garden party and said, “Please support your wife, like you have always done.”

“They talked to a non-celebrity like myself,” Watanabe said. “I was surprised by the range of their interests and was greatly encouraged.”

Other members of the imperial family continued chatting with Watanabe after the imperial couple had moved on to the next guest.

Watanabe said that Princess Kiko, wife of Prince Akishino, told her, “It would be good if there are more places like yours.”

It is not clear when or why such chatting sessions started, but one was held as far back as around 1970.

Other “ordinary” party guests have been a fabric dyeing artist, a kimono sewer and a postman who served for 37 years.

Metal caster Shoichi Nanbu, 74, who was invited to the garden party in spring 2012, said, “I was ecstatic that he (Akihito) knew we made the pulleys of the elevators for Tokyo Skytree.”

The first palace garden party was held in 1953.

After Akihito ascended the throne in 1989, he hosted his first garden party in May 1990.

(This article was written by Ayako Nakada and Yasuhiko Shima.):